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Update No: 065 - (26/04/07)

Regional cooperation?
Afghanistan has now been admitted to the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). The move is unlikely to have much impact given the nearly frozen status of SAARC and the continuing existence of bilateral issues among the countries involved, chiefly Pakistan and India. There is no sign, for example, that Pakistan is moving anywhere closer to allowing the transit of India goods towards Afghanistan. At present, such goods are still routed through Iran, with much higher transport costs. The only gain in the recent SAARC meeting in New Delhi was the extension to it of the ongoing study on multi-modal transport systems for the region. Any gain deriving from that is going to be in a distant future. Attempts to improve relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are also being repeatedly delayed. The long talked about Peace Jirgas, have been postponed again and further discussions concerning them will not be held until May. 
President Karzai, on the other hand, admitted during April for the first time that he was talking to the Taliban, although he did not specify how high his contacts were and what had been discussed. Pressure on Karzai in favour of negotiations has been mounting in the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan, but also from diplomatic sources. 

Narcotics blues
The arrival of the new US Coordinator of Counter-Narcotics and Justice Reform Thomas A. Schweich rekindled the debate on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan. The Europeans are trying to come up with a convincing alternative to Washington’s aggressive pro-aerial eradication lobbying, but have so far failed to produce credible options. Talks of legalisation of poppy production seem to be aimed mainly at the European public, which is increasingly disillusioned with NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan in the face of ever rising heroin exports from Afghanistan. However, they are sternly opposed by UNODC (the UN agency dealing with drugs issues), which invested a lot of energy in convincing neighbouring countries in eradicating their own crops. It is also feared that legalising production would only result in an increase of production, without effects on the illegal trade.

Troubled reform
Efforts to reform the administration have been moving slowly. The peak of mismanagement and corruption in Afghanistan might well have been the national carrier company, Ariana. The airline is now on the verge of collapse, about to be overwhelmed by its debts, estimated at US$41 million. Its planes are very old and it is not clear how it could ever afford to pay for the new planes it is trying to purchase. The company is now banned from most international airports on charges of lack of safety and possibly even drug running. However, even some of the plans to open the mineral sector to foreign investment might face the hostility of the locals, who often benefit from illegally exploiting the mines. This is certainly the case of the emerald and lapislazuli mines of north-eastern Afghanistan, for example. 

Another source of trouble for the government was the rejection of its draft budget by the Afghan parliament at the end of March. The MPs complained about the uneven distribution of resources between Kabul and the provinces. In the government’s draft, the US$450 million allocated to the provinces have been split fifty-fifty between Kabul and the other 33 provinces. The government might now have to adjust the budget. The plight of the provinces is complicated by the fact that due to the worsening security non-government agencies are lees and less able to deliver any development. This is particularly the case of the southern region, but pockets of insecurity have been emerging in several regions in the north and north-east too.

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